Sunday, 31 January 2021

Horror Show - Iced Earth


Provenance: Another £1 bargain from the internal message board at a former job. I didn't really know a huge amount about Iced Earth at the time, but the chance to acquire some metal in exchange for a very small sum of metal proved irresistible.

I feel like Iced Earth are a band I've seen at some festival or another in a mid-to-late afternoon slot but my brain has been pounded into slurry by pandemic lockdowns, so who knows? I'm beginning to doubt I ever enjoyed seeing live music, once upon a time.

Review: So here we have it, Horror Show, each track taking its cue from a scary movie or historical personage, with the exception of 'Ghost of Freedom', which comes from the head of lead squealer Matt Barlow, plus a cover of the Iron Maiden instrumental 'Transylvania'. Iced Earth's main man and sole constant, guitarist Jon Schaffer, is responsible for writing virtually all the music and most of the lyrics throughout. 

I have a soft spot for anyone who indulges in these kind of monster-based shenanigans, ranging from Bobby 'Boris' Pickett through to Lordi and Ghost, so we're off to a good start. It's not always successful - observe Judas Priest's paean to Loch Ness and its resident cryptid features lyrics that straddle the Spinal Tap 'fine line between stupid and clever' divide (but also, crucially, an indestructible guitar riff). However, when it comes off, it's cool as fuck - the aforementioned Priest with 'The Ripper', Blue Oyster Cult cranking out 'Godzilla' and 'Nosferatu' on the same goddamn album, a whole bunch of Rob Zombie stuff - hell, I'll even allow Alice Cooper's 'Feed My Frankenstein', Elvira cameo 'n' all. The Venn diagram between fans of scary movies and heavy metal must be pretty chunky, so it's a good bet.

Thus, we've got musical tributes here to the Wolf Man, The Omen movies, Jack the Ripper (fertile ground, evidently), the Mummy, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, Count Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera. This should be a lot of fun!

And, yeah, it is. The music itself isn't much more than rather decent power metal, though I found the mostly acoustic balladry of 'Ghost of Freedom' quite affecting alongside being a welcome change of pace. Matt Barlow - or Sergeant Matthew Barlow of the Georgetown Police Department, to give you some colour as to his current activities - is vocally a good fit, his delivery belying an obvious Geoff Tate (Queensryche) influence. My biggest bugbear with a lot of bands in the thrash and power-metal is that the drumming production sounds piss-weak. Somewhere along the line the rolling thunder of early metal became replaced with the impotent pitter-patter of double-bass pedals and a tinny, clattery quality to the rest of the kit. 

However, there's plenty of schlock to make up for this, including the wonderfully devilish incantations on 'Damien', hokey vocal effects on 'Jekyll & Hyde' (yes, of course, the two 'characters' speak to each other) and a suitably melodramatic finale in 'The Phantom Opera Ghost'. Bonus points, too, for doing a song called 'Frankenstein' which is about the doctor, not his monster, though it challenges us to ponder as to 'Who's the monster? Who's the victim?'. Hello, has anybody considered that, uh, maybe society is the monster in all this? Anyway, 'Frankenstein' is the highlight of Horror Show for me, though its Maiden-esque successor 'Dracula' runs it close. Hey buddy, have you ever wondered if society is the vampire?

My own personal gripes with the percussion aside, everything sounds pretty great on Horror Show without quite having the requisite sizzle or magical spark to elevate the album to the A-list. What could do it, I wonder? A spot of narration by Sir Christopher Lee, per Manowar? Perhaps a spot of narration from Orson Welles, per Manowar? Maybe, just being Manowar? I kid, not even Manowar want to be Manowar these days. Besides, whilst Iced Earth might not have been able to call upon the talents of Lee or Welles, the wonderfully-named Yunhui Percifield provides co-lead vocals on 'The Phantom Opera Ghost' and she does a top job, so that's something to be celebrated. Entertaining stuff, then, rammed to the rafters with all manner of ghouls 'n' ghosts - but whatever did happen to the 'Transylvania Twist'?

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin

Provenance: My mum owned this on vinyl.

How much of your taste in music is down to your parents? For me, it's a huge factor. I never saw the need to particularly rebel, because by and large my parents knew their onions.

Off the top of my head, in terms of albums my parents own that are mirrored in my collection, there's this and Led Zeppelin III, Tapestry by Carole King, a couple of Alice Cooper albums, ditto Frank Zappa, An Electric Storm by White Noise, a bit of Hawkwind. Not bad.

I didn't really take to Emerson, Lake and Palmer nor Rod Stewart, but although I haven't (yet) purchased Gryphon's Raindance, evidently I'd heard enough to make me curious. It was all very listenable, even if some of my parents' latter day choices (Mika's Life In Cartoon Motion, anyone?) might take a bit of digesting.

However, Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso, if you're so inclined) was not only instantly gettable, it would also prove to be a watershed moment; I recall walking through the door one day after school, and evidently my mum had cued this bad boy up a moment beforehand. What I was to hear would essentially make me go, "yep, playing guitar, that's what I want to do", setting me on a course of joy and lifelong discovery. 

Review: Per the above paragraph; I heard Robert Plant's wailing, sure, but I felt the guitar in 'Black Dog'. It really was a few seconds, that's all it took, to convert me to a guitar player (albeit, at that time, sans guitar). I'd grown up listening to guitar bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream, and although I had liked what I'd heard, this was something different. Listen to Jimmy Page's opening guitar riff in 'Black Dog' again and you can hear a swagger, an arrogance almost, a sound that didn't just groove or roll, but strutted. Underpinned by John Bonham's thunderous drumming, there was only one word that came to mind: power.

Amazingly, given the time and distance between then and now, little has diminished my original teenaged assessment. Since that time I've become better acquainted with Led Zeppelin's overall body of music, which contains its share of missteps, and I must admit my opinions have been occluded by the impression given that they weren't a particularly likeable bunch; I have also wearied of the kind of pub bore who will insist Led Zeppelin are superb, and that everything else is a pile of horseshit created by computers or young people or whatever. Oh yes, and they were massive plagiarists.

But Led Zeppelin IV? A work of rare genius.

What I love about this album is that it jumps from the very 'eavy 'Black Dog' to the nitro-glycerine boogie of 'Rock And Roll' to the pastoral Tolkien-folk of 'Battle Of Evermore' - and then an amalgamation of all these qualities on 'Stairway To Heaven' - yet it still sounds conceptually tight. And that's just side one. An album that covers so many bases could (should?) be a mess, but it hangs together perfectly. The pacing is exquisite, a rollercoaster in the truest sense inasmuch as each track takes the listener in a different direction, whether it's mood, atmosphere, tempo, and yet each oxbow and undulation remains part of the same overall journey.

In my callow youth my favourites were 'Black Dog', 'Rock And Roll', 'Stairway To Heaven' and 'Misty Mountain Hop', all the muscle and blood tracks basically; now, although I cannot say any of the aforementioned have gone stale (yes, even 'Stairway...'), it's the more ruminative moments such as 'Battle Of Evermore' and the swooning 'Going To California' that have wormed their way deepest into my affections. Special mention must go to Sandy Denny's imperious singing on 'Battle...', a performance that alone impelled me to pay closer attention to Fairport Convention. I have, however, omitted one very important track. It ain't 'Four Sticks' (NB: a good song, but it comes across a little fidgety and half-formed for my tastes).

'When The Levee Breaks' may have been an old Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie blues from 1929, but even now the version on IV induces a sense of awe and sublimity. As brilliantly wrought as the rest of the album is, there's sorcery at work here, friends. By a variety of measures there is heavier music out there, but little comes as close to being as weighty or portentous as 'When The Levee Breaks' is. Into the admixture is the haunting, otherworldly harmonica, Page's droning, modal guitar and Plant's anguished vocal; but the true star is Bonham's drumming. Eschewing flash or intricacy, Bonham instead booms away on a beat that sounds like depth charges being detonated. The overall effect is that 'When The Levee Breaks', a song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, comes across every bit as doomy and apocalyptic as its subject matter. Eat that, Randy Newman.

There you have it - simply, in terms of my own personal relationship with popular music, one of the most important landmarks. There's a straight line between IV and me picking up a guitar, which in turn took me down avenues of exploration around blues music, heavy metal and all points in-between. An immense album, and one that has never ceased to be a pleasure. Perhaps those saloon bar stalwarts had a point, eh?

Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Bridge - Sonny Rollins


Provenance: I read an article about The Bridge and its gestation period, and decided to buy the album. Simple as that, really.

The hook to the whole project was that Rollins felt he wasn't quite up to snuff, so took a three-year hiatus to hone his craft. As he could not practice at home in his New York City apartment without disturbing his neighbours, he instead took to practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Incidentally, there is a campaign to rename the Williamsburg Bridge; the proposal is to call it the Sonny Rollins Williamsburg Bridge instead. Well, why not? We commemorate all kinds of daft or evil people through statues, roads, even whole cities; let's have a significant landmark named after someone cool for a change, eh?

Review: Oh dear, once again I am reviewing jazz, without either the requisite vocabulary or knowledge to do so. Deep breaths, my boy, this isn't so tough. Just...listen to the music. And - perhaps - jot down your impressions? Don't worry too much about what some hepcat scribbled away in Melody Maker or DownBeat, and concentrate on your own inner stirrings.

So...The Bridge, by Sonny's...good.

Alright, it's better than good; The Bridge is pretty damn good if you're into bop. Which I am, insofar as I have just enough wherewithal to say something stupid about it in a crowded room. Whilst I couldn't ever recommend this as an entrepot into jazz - my Damascene moment came via Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um - for those who have been snuffling around for even a short will find much to savour here. 

The best moments on The Bridge come via the two original Rollins compositions, 'The Bridge' and 'John S'. Although the playing throughout is immaculate, it's on 'John S' where guitarist Jim Hall really gets to dazzle with his fluid, kaleidoscopic fretwork, whilst 'The Bridge' features a break from drummer Ben Riley that skitters and rolls about the place, before kicking back in to the tumbling twin sax-and-guitar lines that herald the coda. Both cuts exhibit an intensity that bespeaks a restlessness; perhaps I am being overly fanciful, knowing about Rollins' retreat from the public eye, but they seem to be shouting "here I am! And just listen to this!"

There's nothing on here that one could suggest is innovatory; when this was recorded, we already had the Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman to puzzle over, and Eric Dolphy's brain-twister Out To Lunch! was just around the corner. Instead, we're treated to a kind of bop Rolls Royce, positively purring with class and assurance. From opener 'Without A Song' to the closing stroll of 'You Do Something To Me', the playing oozes taste, technique and assurance; the latter a quality that presumably Rollins did not feel he was in command of when beginning his monastic withdrawal from the jazz world in 1959. Just listening to the saxophone solo in 'You Do Something...' is confounding, as it mixes an almost bullying aggression with a wry playfulness. Certainly, not the product of someone who doubted his own talents.

It's also interesting to pause and note what isn't on The Bridge; there's no modal improvisations going on, none of the knockabout rhythm 'n' blues influence that Mingus explored so well, and hey, there's not even a piano to tinkle away or pound out big meaty block chords. What this does do, however, is elevate the interplay between the principals, most notably Rollins and Hall. Here, with bass and percussion providing a solid frame, they are able to chase each other's tail, and whilst Rollins dominates, through his quicksilver runs Hall sometimes seems to be goading his leader into a drag-race. Nonetheless, proceedings never devolve into a free-for-all; this is, after all, a serious effort, a line-in-the-sand statement from Rollins that simply says: I'm back.

The Bridge wasn't the giant step forward that one might have anticipated after Rollins' self-imposed sabbatical; looking back, though, that wasn't the point. Rather, this collection of finely-wrought music, played with seriousness and no little fire, stood as an exclamation mark in the Sonny Rollins story. Don't view The Bridge as a comeback, but rather the end of an exile, a terminus that was as emphatic as it was welcome.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Demons And Wizards - Uriah Heep


Provenance: Way back when I was at school a friend bought me a triple CD called Metal, the meat of which was split between semi-obscure NWOBHM acts (Vardis, anyone?) and stuff that simply wasn't, er, metal (how Robin George's 'Heartline' made the cut is anyone's guess).

Nonetheless, despite it's rather wonky take on the genre, the compilation featured a smattering of Heep tracks, including 'Easy Livin''. That was enough to get me to shell out a whole nine quid, if I recall rightly, at my local HMV, for the "expanded de-luxe edition" of Demons and Wizards.

And yeah, in case you've twigged, Uriah Heep are next to Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats in my album collection. I'm being lazy.

Review: Last time out I rhapsodised about Uncle Acid's monstrous 'I'll Cut You Down'; and frankly, I could be every bit as emotionally incontinent here about 'Easy Livin'', a song I've also spent more of my life with. It's pure, distilled Heep in the span of around three minutes; Mick Box's buzzy guitar, the late Ken Hensley's strident Hammond organ filling up the sound, and above all else David Byron's ridiculous, brilliant lead vocal. To call it the most heads-down, rocking track on Demons And Wizards feels inadequate. Rather, 'Easy Livin'' bounds out of the speakers with the earnestness and vim of an over-stimulated Labrador.

Back to David Byron for a moment - I've made sport of Deep Purple's Ian Gillan before now for being somewhat hammy in his delivery, but Byron is the whole darned charcuterie board. Whilst an undoubtedly powerful singer, it's so fruity and declamatory that one is minded to think of histrionic old stagers like of Brian Blessed or Christopher Biggins. Given that this is also early-1970s dungeons 'n' dragons rock fayre, the threat that the whole towering souffle will collapse in on itself is very real.

And, hey, it happens - 'Circle of Hands' and 'Paradise' are silly indulgences by anybody's standards, the kind of frothy pretentiousness that infects the minds of guys who want to kick out the jams having read a few pages of The Hobbit. Can you really blame 'em, though? Missteps are inevitable, considering Demons And Wizards was Heep's fourth album in the span of two years. But when it hits, the combination of genuinely top-notch musicianship and fantastical subject matter can be exhilarating.

Por ejemplo, 'Poet's Justice' is a rather underplayed number with a couple of unexpected jazzy chord changes, and 'All My Life', with its slide guitar and honky-tonk piano, could conceivably sit at the admittedly heavier end of the southern rock spectrum; that is, until the utterly bizarre coda. Let's say that some of the vocal contributions from Byron at this point are a little, ah, injudicious. In fact, the song finishes up in a big swell of organ, falsetto backing vocals and Byronic emissions, Heep reverting to type just as you think they've pitched a curveball.

However, 'Rainbow Demon' is absolutely right up there with 'Easy Livin'' as one of the primo cuts from the Heep back catalogue. A prowling, low-key intro mutates into a stomping, insistent muvva of a track which builds towards one of the most volcanic choruses of the era. Here, Heep are toeing a very fine line, as This Is Spinal Tap would have it, between stupid and clever. I'm sure to those plagued by a surfeit of irony, hearing a grown man bellow the words "Rainbow - demon! Pick up your heart and run!" is funny (NB: it is), but if you can tune yourself into the peculiarities of the era a rich experience awaits.

Now, normally I don't delve into the bonus tracks, but one called 'Why' merits special mention. One thing that Demons And Wizards emphatically isn't is groovy; even the boogie passages of 'The Spell' are quite clunky. However, on 'Why', Heep go from a band that can't locate a pocket on Batman's utility keks to playing some truly sinuous funk rock. I don't really know the history of this track (I believe it's a b-side) but it truly warrants more exposure, even if it does feature a mid-section containing the usual melange of freneticism that Heep conflate with rocking out.

In spite - or maybe, because - of its obvious flaws, Demons And Wizards remains an album with high replay value. It's a cracking time capsule of a time where abundant hair, nicotine-yellowed teeth, high voices and cranked organs lit the path to a heavy rock Shambhala. For sure, there's a bit of ring rust and a slight knock in the engine, but this gnarled old warhorse gives the show-ponies a run for their money.